The New Mexico Supreme Court recently upheld public access to formal citizen complaints filed against police officers.
In late June, the Court denied a request for review of a lower court ruling. That decision left in place a 2010 appellate court decision which held that formal citizen complaints against police officers were public records and could be released under New Mexico’s Inspection of Public Records Act (“IPRA”). Cox v. New Mexico Dept. of Public Safety, 148 N.M. 934, 242 P.3d 501 (N.M. App. 2010). The New Mexico Department of Public Safety sought to withhold the records, claiming that the citizen complaints fell under an IPRA exemption for “matters of opinion in personnel files” because the records relate to an officer’s job performance. However, the New Mexico Court of Appeals found the exemption inapplicable, finding that citizen complaints necessarily arise from an officer’s role as a public servant, not the employment relationship with a public agency. The appellate court noted that internal investigation reports and employer opinions generated as a result of citizen complaints remain exempt under as “matters of opinion in personnel files.” However, the complaints themselves cannot be withheld. 242 P.3d at 507-08. The court commented that though the Department of Public Safety “is the keeper of the information contained in the citizen complaints, the information continues to belong to the citizen who made the complaint.” Id. at 507. Even if the allegations or complaints are untrue, it is not a basis for withholding information from the public. Id.